Cells use protein-DNA and protein-protein interactions to regulate transcription. A biophysical understanding of this process has, however, been limited by the lack of methods for quantitatively characterizing the interactions that occur at specific promoters and enhancers in living cells. Here we show how such biophysical information can be revealed by a simple experiment in which a library of partially mutated regulatory sequences are partitioned according to their in vivo transcriptional activities and then sequenced en masse. Computational analysis of the sequence data produced by this experiment can provide precise quantitative information about how the regulatory proteins at a specific arrangement of binding sites work together to regulate transcription. This ability to reliably extract precise information about regulatory biophysics in the face of experimental noise is made possible by a recently identified relationship between likelihood and mutual information. Applying our experimental and computational techniques to the Escherichia coli lac promoter, we demonstrate the ability to identify regulatory protein binding sites de novo, determine the sequence-dependent binding energy of the proteins that bind these sites, and, importantly, measure the in vivo interaction energy between RNA polymerase and a DNA-bound transcription factor. Our approach provides a generally applicable method for characterizing the biophysical basis of transcriptional regulation by a specified regulatory sequence. The principles of our method can also be applied to a wide range of other problems in molecular biology.
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